India's silk sari- weavers face bleak, hungry future
Tue Jul 3, 2007 11:05PM EDT
Email | Print | Digg | Reprints | Single Page
[ -] Text [+]
1 of 1 Full Size
By Jonathan Allen
VARANASI , India (Reuters) - Shiwajatan Rajbhar spends his days weaving golden and silver flowers across exquisite silk saris on a rickety handloom in his mud hut.
Once completed, the handloom sari -- traditionally a prized part of any Indian bride's trousseau -- will be sold for many times his monthly income.
The northern city of Varanasi is to handloom saris what Darjeeling is to tea. Yet despite producing some of the most coveted saris in the Indian subcontinent, the weavers -- said to number between 200,000 and 500,000 -- have never been rich.
Now, with the market flooded with cheap machine-made saris, they are poorer than ever with some turning to farming and manual labor and others resorting to begging.
The weavers are typical of the millions of Indians left behind by market forces even as parts of the country's metropolises enjoy increasing prosperity from a booming economy.
In the 1990s powerlooms became increasingly common, spitting out several saris in a day -- the same time it takes someone like Rajbhar to weave only the first yard of a classic six-meter sari on his wooden handloom, thread by thread.
Machine-made Chinese imitations have in recent years flooded the market, often sold by dishonest dealers as the real thing.
Varanasi 's weavers say they cannot compete, and so thousands of looms have fallen silent.
"They started closing down slowly, one or two at a time," remembers Munni Devi, who lives in Gaurakala village, once home to about 100 handlooms.
Now there are only two still running.
Many of the others have been trashed for firewood. The trenches dug in the floors of their homes to house the looms' pedals now resemble shallow graves.
Before, the families once earned so much they could build sturdy two-storey homes, grand by Indian village standards.
These days, the once proud artisans now slowly sell off ornaments for money and rent land to farm.
WAITING FOR HELP
Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi of local advocacy group PVCHR points out that almost all weavers are either low-caste Hindus or from India's Muslim minority -- communities that have often been marginalized -- and are mostly illiterate.
His group wants the government to follow through on its proposal to introduce a handloom mark of authenticity so that the weavers have a fairer shot at selling their coveted saris in the market.
Until then, if they cannot earn from their handlooms, the weavers must resort to menial jobs, such as driving rickshaws, selling vegetables, laying roads or begging.
In the last few years, around 50 adults and children from weaving families have either starved to death, or killed themselves rather than endure their poverty, according to PVCHR.
Many lack the government ration card to which the poor are entitled, which would give them discounted or free food.
Tuberculosis is also common. The weaver parents of Iqbal Khan, 15, were typical: they went to their graves not knowing they were entitled to free life-saving drugs from the government.
Khan now has the disease that made him an orphan and sleeps most of the day, while his 8-year-old sister shoulders the extra burden of work on their handloom alongside two aunts.
Ramauti Rajbhar, like many weavers, talks about her poverty and hunger with weary good humor.
Likewise, the children playing between the mud huts look happy enough, even if malnutrition has turned their black hair tawny yellow and left their skin visibly dry.
Most of Rajbhar's one-room home in Bhagwa Nala is taken up by two defunct handlooms. She now works as a casual laborer on building sites. If she gets hired in the morning, she takes home 60 rupees ($1.50) in the evening.
She can afford to feed her children only a bowl or two of plain rice and some bread each day. Sometimes they get nothing.
"Tell me, with 100 rupees, what shall I do? Should I spend it on bread, or on medicines or on educating my children?" asked Rajbhar, saying her eldest daughter was about to become a full-time dishwasher.
"I have little hope for the future," she added, her eyes bloodshot and hooded from fatigue.
An Ancient Indian Craft Left in Tatters
Sari Weavers Struggle amid Economic Boom
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 6, 2007; A01
VARANASI, India -- Deep in a labyrinth of stucco buildings, in a dark, cavelike warehouse, Mohamed Javen, 18, switched on a light bulb, sat before his rickety loom and began working on what was once the prize possession of every Indian bride: the hand-woven silk sari.
His feet operated the bamboo pedals, making a rhythmic clopping sound. He carefully positioned hair-thin strands of gold thread into green silk, crafting a glittery lattice of leaves, elephants and birds that unfolded like a painting.
This sari design, which has been in Javen's family for 100 years, can take up to two months to weave. Patterns like these have been a source of Indian pride for more than 2,000 years, with India's version of haute couture adorning wealthy women of the empires of Rome, Egypt and Persia. Until recently, weaving was India's second-most-common occupation, behind farming.
But in this ancient city along the Ganges, Hinduism's holiest river, an estimated 1 million sari weavers are facing almost certain ruin. Cheaper, machine-made saris -- many of which are copied from Varanasi's famous patterns -- are being pumped out of China and from newer factories in India's western Gujarat state. Adding to the weavers' woes, changing fashions and global trade rules have opened the Indian market to foreign competitors, leaving many once-prosperous sari weavers and their families in desperate poverty.
"This loom will be in a museum," said Javen's despairing uncle, Nazir Ahmed, 30, whose family was forced to shut down 12 of their 14 looms. "We would have never predicted this. We were India's artists. Now we are living in poverty."
The new India is home to smooth highways and shiny high-rises, all the accouterments of the developed world. But millions of craftsmen, manual laborers and rural workers are being left out of the economic boom. Nearly 70 percent of India's population lives on less than $2 a day, and with more than 40 percent of its young malnourished, India is worse off than Africa in terms of children's health, according to the United Nations .
India also lacks a social security system, leaving weavers , farmers and others vulnerable to market forces. It is a gaping hole in India's rush to become a developed country that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pledged to fix.
"This is the ugly, painful side of globalization. It's a real crisis. If India is booming, you don't see it among weavers or farmers or other rural laborers, which is to say most of the country," said Lenin Raghuvanshi, head of the People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights, an aid group here. "Helping those left behind is India's greatest challenge."
Few professions in South Asia were as esteemed as that of the sari weaver -- part artist, part craftsman. Using simple foot-powered looms, weavers for generations have fashioned elaborate patterns and scenes of weddings, mango groves and Mughal processions, replete with elephants and horse-drawn carriages. Their canvases are billowing sunflower and saffron silks, each six yards long.
The father of independent India, Mohandas Gandhi , clad in his homespun loincloth, launched his nationalist movement to defy colonialism by encouraging Indians to stop wearing cheap British machine-made cloth in favor of Indian-made fabrics, partly as a gesture of self-reliance. The hand-loomed saris from Varanasi became a national symbol for India's independence.
But today, the decline of the sari industry has had tragic consequences. In the eastern villages and cities of Uttar Pradesh state, 175 weavers committed suicide last year, despondent over their recent change in fortunes, according to the People's Vigilance Committee. About 70 percent of weavers' children are malnourished, aid groups estimate. The weavers also cannot afford basic medical care for their children, much less themselves.
That's how Razia Khatoon, the wife of a once-prominent weaver, last year ended up a stranded widow with nine children to feed.
In her village just outside Varanasi, Khatoon said customers stopped buying handmade saris several years ago. She had to sell the gold she received at her wedding, the Indian equivalent of hocking a diamond engagement ring. Soon after, she married off her two oldest daughters "just so that they could be fed somewhere else," she said.
Her husband, Mohammad Ismail, 50, became more and more distressed as profits from weaving continued to dwindle. He also had contracted tuberculosis and was unable to pay for the medicines needed to treat the disease.
"The saris he wove were meant for queens and princesses," she said. "But everything changed. He started to wish he taught his sons more useful skills."
Ismail died in July 2006, Khatoon said. Traumatized by her grief and her new financial pressures, she sat with his body through the night, as her children hugged her.
"I was afraid of the future," whispered Khatoon, 45, red-eyed as she recalled Ismail's death. "Then everything got worse."
Early this May, her pretty 20-year-old daughter, Ruksana, also died of tuberculosis. Now the disease is set to claim her 16-year-old daughter, Salma, who rests limply on a straw mat outside her family's shanty.
What makes the deaths of Ismail and his daughter so surprising is that the weaver's family was always self-sufficient.
Likewise, Ramzam Ali, 32, is the first weaver in five generations to have trouble feeding his family. "I rush every morning to find work as a rickshaw driver or as a day laborer, but there are already so many people already doing those things," Ali said. "If I can't manage to even feed my children, how will I mange to educate them in a different trade?"
Part of the problem is that Ali has a fifth-grade education and no other skills. His father taught him how to weave intricate patterns of lotus flowers and animal motifs onto silk. That's all he ever thought he would need. Now, he joins more than 370 million other Indians in the informal jobs sector, many of them illiterate, unskilled and in dire need of work, according to government studies.
Aid workers trying to help the weavers say the industry desperately needs a marketing campaign. They are talking to Bollywood stars about showcasing handmade Varanasi saris on film while also trying to market the handmade sari to the middle and upper classes as the "little black dress of India" in fashion magazines.
But the campaign has been slow, partly because of greater interest in Western fashion.
In the new Indian metropolis, casual, machine-made cotton kurtas, or shirts, have become the preferred attire of the young; long and colorful, the shirts can be worn over jeans. But as India's markets open, Western fashion outlets like United Colors of Benetton are being flooded by India's young middle class, eager to show the urbane hipness that distinguishes them from their parents.
Despite the boom in many information technology hubs in southern Indian cities, Varanasi 's weaver quarters look like a ghetto, with men sleeping under broken-down looms strung with cobwebs, rutted streets with trash fuming at every turn and donkeys hauling in water for cooking and bathing, tugged along by barefoot urchins.
"I hardly care about booming India when I have no food or money," said Poochland Dash, 60, a white-haired grandfather and a once-wealthy weaver who said through tears that he is considering suicide. He is trying to sell the house he built during the golden years of the sari-weaving industry, with his saris featuring embroidery of men atop animals in rich indigos and reds.
"If a buyer insults me with a too-low price, I swear I will kill myself," Dash said.
Listening nearby, his wife started crying. "If he takes his life, I will take my life, too," she said, staring at the ground.
Special correspondent Indrani Ghosh Nangia contributed to this report.
Dear Lenin Sir,
Foreign support for the vanishing art of weaving at Varanasi
Lucknow, June 28: A foreign hand has now extended support to the weavers of Varanasi. Sri lankan economist Dr Darin Gunesekera was in the city on Thursday to discuss the condition and rehabilitation of the Varanasi weavers.
Convener of the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights Dr Lenin also joined him and said that it was upto the state government to save the losing art form.
"Around 50 weavers have died of hunger or have committed suicide in the last two years. Out of total five lakh weavers, two lakhs have given up the work," said Lenin. "They are living in extreme penury. If the situation is not controlled now, the art form will be lost and it will have serious repercussions all over the country," he added. He said that Varanasi Weavers' Trust was constituted in 2004 for the upliftment of the weavers and development of the Varanasi Saree Industry. A meeting of around 500 weaver leaders was held in April 2007 where various issues and plans were discussed, he said.
Dr Lenin said that they will present a list of demands to the government for approval. " It's not possible to sustain any scheme without full government support," he said. Dr Darin said that the World Trade Organisation policies have not only taken away the jobs from weavers but also from many other small scale industries employees. "The formation of the trust is one step in resistance of the WTO policies. It will enhance the collective bargaining power of the weavers," he said.
"It should be realised that Varanasi weavers and their industry are a valuable resource to India, a country that's undergoing globalisation. So, we need to plan its future very carefully. Weaving is an ancient and major element of art. Weavers can excel if they are given a market. There is no dearth of talent," Darin said.